Friday, December 25, 2015

Celebrating James Baldwin

White literary critics described the youthful James Baldwin as an angry young man. But while Baldwin eloquently wrote about anger, anger never clouded the lucidity of his narrative--or the gentleman that was James Baldwin himself.

The brilliance and sensitivity of Baldwin's oratory was recognized in his church community at an early age.  By the time he was fifteen years old, he had begun to fill his father's shoes as a preacher in the pulpit.

But I met James Baldwin at the other end of his life--when he was a visiting lecturer at the University of Massachusetts and I was a student.

James Baldwin taught a class in the African-American Studies department. I don't remember the title of the class, but I remember the thesis: that the history of black people in the United States is American history.  Without understanding African-American history, we cannot really know American history. The black American story reveals an essential truth about this country that, while not flattering, cannot be subtracted or diminished from history without history itself becoming a lie.

Baldwin was a physically diminutive man.  He wore long and wide scarves that he wrapped around his neck several times.  By this time, he had a home in France.  (Had I not known that, I would have inferred a French connection nonetheless.)

He had a gravelly smoker's voice and may have mumbled, or the acoustics in the lecture hall may have been really terrible, or maybe he didn't speak closely into the microphone, or maybe the microphone distorted his voice.  I don't know the very reason, but I had to concentrate intensely to hear and understand what he was saying.

And then there was the fact that he was so incredibly brilliant that I had to think and listen and think and process and think and think to keep up, keep up, keep up...It was kind of exhausting.  Some students who loved him fell asleep in the front row.  Two rows back, I did my best to follow along, but I probably zoned out briefly a hundred times.

His novel, Another Country, was why I loved him.  It was filled with a truth that I had never known before, not really. Jack London's brutally unflinching observations on nature spring to mind as a possible comparison to Baldwin's insight about people and society.  I also think of Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath as well as, among artists, Van Gogh and Rodin.

In college, Another Country felt like the first book of its kind that I'd read--not because it was about black people per se, but because of how honestly Baldwin depicted the crushing influence of society's hostility or its utter indifference toward his characters. Compelling, yet excruciating; I had never experienced anything that revealed the poisonous nature of contemporary society from such a place of empathy before I read that book.

On the last day of class, a reception was organized in his honor.  Perhaps it was supposed to be a surprise, or maybe lines of communication had broken down somewhere...

We waited for Professor Baldwin for fifteen minutes.  It was not unusual for him to be ten minutes late.

Half an hour went by.  People started to worry.  A search party was assembled and dispatched.

They found Baldwin in the lecture hall, delivering his lecture for the day to a few students who, like Baldwin himself, hadn't heard about the reception.

So, picture it:  There's the great James Baldwin at the lecture, that famously "angry young man," delivering a lecture to a class diminished in size from 250 to not more than twenty-five students.

He probably wasn't feeling that good to begin with.  Maybe he was tired and achy. But he wasn't lecturing vitriolic about the 200-plus kids who hadn't bothered to show up for his last class that day. He wasn't wagging his finger and saying how terribly irresponsible and thoughtless they all were.

No, he was just teaching.

When Baldwin arrived at the reception, the first thing he did was apologize to everyone in the room for being an hour late.

I was amazed by his generosity and modesty.  James Baldwin had every right to be irritable--even outraged. Communication clearly had broken down somewhere.  His time had been wasted.  Even the lecture he had been faithfully delivering was interrupted and terminated for this event.

And he looked tired.  But he also looked pleased. And he was not irritable at all.

That's when we fell upon him like a pack of sycophants.

There was one student among us whom I detested.  He was such a pompous ass.  His name was not, but was equivalent to, Geoffrey Chaucer, and he acted as if he was Geoffrey Chaucer.

Baldwin had recently published a collection of essays under the title, The Price of the Ticket.  

Spoiler alert: What is the price of the ticket for black people to be citizens in this country?  The price of that ticket is too high.

Cut now to Geoffrey Chaucer attacking James Baldwin with a pen: Would you sign my book? And in it, would you please say...

OMFG, Geoffrey Chaucer was dictating to James Baldwin!!!  I heard it from just a few feet away.  I had positioned myself very carefully so that I wouldn't be mistakenly associated with Chaucer, who was now dictating to the great man: When the price of the ticket is not enough.

Not enough?!  Are you kidding me, Geoffrey Chaucer?  OMG. WTF? (I was a very angry young woman at that moment. I could have throttled Chaucer within an inch of his life, if he weren't so damn big.)

Baldwin glanced up in search of a face--any face that would look back at him with appropriate incredulity.

It was my face that Baldwin saw--a handy mirror of horrified incredulity and scoffing disgust!  (Mine was the horrified incredulity and scoffing disgust; Baldwin's was bemused incredulity.)

I could tell that Baldwin was sick.  He didn't look well. He had never been a handsome man, but he looked especially drawn and frail in 1987.  I often managed to be close by when he was entering the building.  (We were both typically a little late.)  In addition to his friends and admirers, there always seemed to be a question hanging around Baldwin: Did he have the energy to teach today?

I wanted to tell him that I loved him. I didn't think I would have the opportunity again to tell him. I wasn't the only one who wanted to express love to him. Other students approached, sat down across from him, talked a bit about this or that, and concluded by saying how much he meant to them.

I was shy, so I waited until every single person had left the room except for Baldwin. I had already talked with him briefly about Another Country.  I told him how painfully honest I had found it, and how incredibly difficult I imagined it must have been for him to write it. He admitted that it was; he had written it during a time when he found himself at the very edge from which many people (writers and non-writers alike) don't return.  But Baldwin did return. He returned with that book.

I was surprised how quickly the library in the African-American Studies Department, where the reception had been held, now emptied. Many had spoken with Baldwin, but few had talked for long. Everyone had taken turns, politely. Despite how unassuming Baldwin was, both physically, and in his gentle qualities, still I think we were all (except for Geoffrey Chaucer) properly humbled. We understood the value of Baldwin's time and his words; and perhaps, too, there is something about genius, however sweet, however gentle, that is a little bit overwhelming for the rest of us.

But I wanted to tell him that I loved him, and there he was now sitting in a chair by the window with an empty chair across from him. He was waiting for his ride.

I went over to him and smiled. We were acquainted now, thanks to Chaucer's gaff and our conversation about Another Country.  I think he realized I meant no harm.

I just want to tell you I love you.  

I think he reached out his hand. I think I kissed him on the cheek. I know for sure I promptly burst into gulping tears and beat a hasty retreat into the Women's Room, where I continued to cry very loudly for quite a long time.

But I do remember distinctly that as I hastened out of the library, I heard Baldwin behind me say, You're going to be okay, Baby.

It was cancer of the stomach. That was late spring. He died that summer.

What did he mean, I was going to be okay?

For years, I thought he meant me.

But now, I realize that he meant that we would be okay without him, because he was leaving behind a body of work--a legacy--that was everything he had to say and everything he had to give and most of what we needed to light the way.

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